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There’s a tiny area, wedged between the very north-eastern tip of Sulawesi and Lembeh Island that has a reputation as probably the best “muck-diving” location in the world - Having the biggest concentration of the most weird and wonderful creatures imaginable.




Bob Whorton



We arrived in the narrow waterway at dawn amid the hustle of the early morning channel traffic as hundreds of small narrow boats traversed the channel ferrying Lembehan’s optimistically anticipating a day’s paid labour at the mainland port at Bitung following the arrival of numerous freighters.

This predominantly Christian area of Northern Sulawesi has a definite feel of Africa about it. The optimum priority eaking a living and trying to stay above the poverty induced reality on the outskirts of an extensive empire.

Tourism has become an important asset to the local economy providing the ever important benefits of local employment and revenue.



The sky turned orange above us as the sun rose over the shoulder of Lembeh’s volcanic hills driving away the last of the night’s stars and highlighting the extent of the busy straits.

A specialist local guide was hired to show us the best spots and the weirdest of creatures – we hoped. We all had our own agendas regarding what we wanted to see, but at that point we couldn’t really appreciate even half of it... but, looking down into the merky depths of the channel didn’t actually inspire us too much.


The sites along the strait are concentrated north of Bitung around the many bays, coves and vertical sandstone promontories. The famous Kunkungan Bay resort (An American owned operation) lies within one such mainland bay, and a very aesthetic resort too.



Taster - Nudi’ retreat

Within 10 minutes of the briefing the captain had reversed Symphony near one such cliff face that would be our first taste of things to come. The water temperature in the straits was reputed to be much cooler than around the offshore Islands, but hitting the water I was pleasantly surprised that my 3mm suit coped adequately. I was surprised too that the visibility was in excess of 10m allowing adequate perception of the stepped grey slope that gave it the ambiance of a quarry. Then followed 90 minutes of pure indulgence, as we trekked around the coral heads from 25m upwards...


Within moments we were looking at a pygmy sea horse, perched atop a small gorgonian, and below that the rear end of a ‘Cat Shark’ protruded from beneath a rock. Every few seconds a tap on the tank would rally us to ogle at some other strange creature such as scorpionfish so adept at ambush and camouflage that their outline was almost impossible to see. Exquisite nudibranchs ranging in size from fingernail width to that of a hand, roamed the sand and coral heads. Gurnard’s and sea moths flew in and out of view as we headed into the shallows with never a dull moment.


We arrived at the base of the cliff in just a few meters of water and were confronted by the most amazing spectacle of colour imaginable – thousands of orange, blue, yellow and white seasquirts hung like grapes with small soft corals and yellow anemone below the small clefts, together with a vivid collection of sponges – A great start we thought, but during the next dozen dives our appreciation of this remarkable location just got better and better.





Frogfish, Frogfish, Frogfish


Teluk Kanbahu is a large black sandy bay just a little further north split into two sites, here the guide had promised us a frogfish or two... The seabed was more gently sloped with several small patches of coral growth and the reduced visibility. The guide’s ability really became apparent in these conditions, and before long he had pointed out a pair of Harlequin ghost pipefish nestling between the arms of a white crinoid – very pretty too.

We were then led to an area of flat coral and sponge growth that would best be described as a colourful vegetable patch. However, the crops found here were an abundance of small frogfish ranging in colour from bright yellow through orange to a deep red – pretty amazing stuff as one can often search in vain for these masters of disguise.


‘Police Pier’ ‘Zarena’ and ‘Nudi falls’ realised some beautiful frogfish that included the rare Clown and the very rare ‘Warty Frogfish”, the biggest of these males was just 10 cm long.


“Hairball” is a broad site similar to Teluk with hardly any raised areas to speak of, just black volcanic sand, but with numerous patches of non-rooted plant growth resembling ‘hairballs. In contrast the frogfish here ranged from tiny red, white & black males to an extremely large dirty-brown female, but the best find was a pair of ‘weedy’ frogfish trekking across the sand in search of a quiet place to mate – probably in the shelter of the many fallen trees littering the shallower parts of the site.


October is mating season for frogfish at Lembeh, and on several occasions we saw large egg-bound females pursued by one or more of the tiny males during the late afternoons. Mating takes place after dark in an area selected by the female. The female then signals approachability by raising her tail, then one or more males rushed in to do the business – then scarper. This is a dangerous time to be a male frogfish – an inch to far forward and they end up a meal for the female. One female; even in the height of passion was seen to dispatch several cardinal fish – women eh!!!

Different females had different ideas on after care once the eggs were laid – stuck to a tree or put in a shallow hole which was hurriedly covered. As most frogfish generally adapt their colouration when tiny it wasn’t unusual to see different coloured males attending the same orgy.


The Weirdest and most wonderful


Apart from frogfish Lembeh has the probably the most concentrated collection of ‘strange’ critters that can be found anywhere in the world. The regions devil fish for example looked every bit like a pile of discarded bones - partially buried in the grey volcanic sand. When startled it displays colourful tail and pectoral fins, and a high dorsal fin of lethal spines that stands erect – not the thing to kneel upon!

The species of lionfish in this particular area was astonishing too with small intermixed communities around the larger mounds of coral, together with lots of small cuttlefish and schooling dwarf porcupine fish, the latter having the most incredible green jewel-like eye structure.


Probably the most diverse site for marine life was undoubtedly ‘Hairball’ and warranted several revisits to try and squeeze it all in. Over four dives we were amazed to find an incredible quota that included Cockatoo wasp fish, 20 cm sea horses, crocodile eels, Ambon Scorpionfish, large pipefish and a plethora of shrimp species.


Oddball Rally

At 8m the ‘Hairball’s’ sandy slope flattened out - here, in just a few minutes we had dragonets, leaf fish and flounder but then came along the good stuff. A rattle rallied us once more this time to ogle at an unusual ‘hermit’ octopus, but in stead of a shell this individual had utilised a plastic container, which two arms held firmly covering its body. Then we were summoned to admire a more unusual octopus – The incredible ‘Wonder Puss’. This beasty, every bit the same as the mimic I thought, aped a starfish and allowed the group in very close before deciding to slip into its tiny tube-like lair in the sand. Then from the corner of my eye appeared a sizeable yellow sea horse swimming towards an area of large coral formations... amazing sight.

Investigating the area it was quickly apparent that the corals provided a nursery environment for juvenile fish such as barramundi and sweetlips. All over this area hundreds of anemone supported a host of symbiotic pals like the huge ‘Panda’ anemone fish and the incredibly beautiful ‘Bangai Cardinal fish’. The latter massed in their hundreds.

Incidentally, the reason so many nocturnal predatory fish reside in the Lembeh area is due to the abundance of numerous species of cardinal fish that use the bays for shelter and hunting themselves.



As the boat left Lembeh and headed north towards Bangka Island next years return was already being chiselled into stone. The twelve dives here had gone so quickly due to the constant spectacle confronting us at every available moment. The diving here is easy and almost care-free, the most difficult thing was trying to recall and identify each and every type of beast for the log books...


This trip was organised through the originators of diving in Northern Sulawesi – Murex, to which Lembeh constituted an unmissible part of an extensive live aboard safari itinerary.

A big thank you goes out to the staff at the Murex Resort in Manado and to the attentive crew of the ‘Symphony’


Anyone interested in next years cruise please contact me by email for full details.













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As close to pictures a description could get Bob!


If only it was all play and no work I'd be there. I have to settle for piers, lakes and crappy quarries though. Life's a bitch!!

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